Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, wants to see some big changes in his party. Photo: Getty
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“The party’s been hijacked by a metropolitan elite”: Labour MP Simon Danczuk

As Ukip’s gains and Ed Miliband’s awkward Sun moment prompt questions about Labour’s blue-collar vote, the party’s MP for Rochdale opens up about the changes he’d like to see from his leader.

The MP for Rochdale Simon Danczuk is eating breakfast in Portcullis House. It looks like there’s more honey than porridge in his bowl, but the backbencher’s calls for his own party to start changing don’t stick in his throat.

Already known for his outspoken criticism of Ed Miliband’s “one-dimensional shadow cabinet” and condemnation of its sloganeering, Danczuk has occasionally riled the party’s leadership for voicing his dissatisfaction with its direction.

However, rather than dismissing him as a pesky maverick, Miliband and his circle should perhaps pay attention. Danczuk is not just a crass Ed-basher. He has a fairly nuanced idea of where his party should go.

Danczuk has concerns about appealing to working-class voters such as those in his seat, which he himself describes as a “magnet for the dispossessed”. However, he also expresses admiration for the New Labour years, Tony Blair’s leadership specifically – often remembered for its Islington set poshing-up the party.

He is jovial and straightforward, his blue eyes glinting wryly as he discloses his current political concerns to me:

“It could be argued that the party has been hijacked by a metropolitan elite,” Danczuk remarks. “Unlike under Blair, where he had a whole array of different people around him for his long tenure, from Mo Mowlam through to Hazel Blears, with [John] Prescott throughout, Alan Johnson, John Reid and [Alan] Milburn and others.

“So the party had some sort of equilibrium in terms of who is running and controlling it,” he tells me, almost wistfully. He was elected in 2010 (a candidate in the seat where Gordon Brown made his “bigoted woman” blunder) and so missed those heady years of government.

He concludes, frankly: “Now it feels to me like the party’s been hijacked by a metropolitan elite that have a particular view of the world and they are insistent upon imposing that view on others, and I think it’s eroding the support that we get.”

Danczuk’s seat, which has a high immigrant and asylum seeker population, is a clear factor in his insistence that Labour mustn’t ignore Ukip. The rightwing party has eaten into Labour’s support, including its safe seats in the North. This twist of the political landscape has seen recent urges for Labour to renew its appeal to blue-collar voters, and, as Marcus Roberts points out in this week’s New Statesman, the party has been “haemorrhaging” working-class support for over a decade.

“There’s one point that’s been said but shouldn’t be said by Labour activists and Labour people,” Danczuk insists. “It’s that ‘we shouldn’t try and out-Ukip Ukip’” he rolls his eyes.

“I think it’s an unhelpful comment and some people within the party seem to have latched on to it. I think we should come out with policies that work and serve the communities we represent. I represent a very diverse constituency.”

He then methodically takes me through a comprehensive history of immigration in Rochdale town centre, from Ukrainians and Poles during the war, to the Sixties which welcomed people from the Asian subcontinent, to closing mills creating a ghost town in the Eighties and Nineties, leaving room for asylum seekers, many from Africa, to an Irish Traveller community, to Eastern Europeans today from EU states.

“Tell me why Rochdale people wouldn’t have a view on immigration? This is the crux of the point: to say to them, ‘immigration is good; it’s good for the economy’. Well, it might be good for Islington and other places in North London, but it’s less good for places like Rochdale.

“It’s put enormous pressure on services over a number of years, in terms of health services, education. My son is one of six kids out of 30 who you would describe as ‘white-English’. The rest would be African or Polish or Irish Travellers. . . Also [the pressure] in terms of employment in the town.”

His dig at the perception of modern Labour’s leadership consisting of a gaggle of kale-caning North London liberals reminds me of something Tottenham MP David Lammy once said, when I interviewed him last year: “The Labour Party isn’t just the metropolitan liberal elite party. It can’t just be the party of Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill.”

So it’s a concern that spans Northern and London representatives.

Danczuk believes “we need to strengthen the borders”, and also “have to get people out of the country quicker when they shouldn’t be here”. He argues that immigrants shouldn’t be able to claim benefits, nor have a right to housing, for the first 12 months of being in Britain. He also suggests that dual nationality is a problem:

“We need to look around Britishness, and we have what they call dual nationality. So you can be, for argument’s sake, Pakistani and British, and I know they don’t do that in Germany and in other countries. I wonder whether we should look to limiting the ability to have dual nationality. You either want to be British or you don’t want to be.”

Danczuk’s upbringing also plays a significant part in his political thinking. Brought up in Burnley, Lancashire, he says he was, “struggling to be working-class; I’m from the under-class, really aren’t I? Living on benefits with a single mother.”

His family wasn’t political but his grandmother was “very Labour”. She introduced him to George Orwell’s works, and by the time he was 14, he’d read “All of it – from Keep the Aspidistra Flying through to Homage to Catalonia”. He used to go down to the local library and read the Guardian, which he chuckles was “a bit odd”.

He recalls his black Doc Marten boots, in fashion when he was a teenager, wearing through the rubber sole down to his sock, and being unable to replace them. His mother would make what she called “Tarzan Soup”, which was “really just vegetables boiled in water”, he recalls. “She was dressing it up as something exciting and interesting to eat. The reality was it was a very poor man’s soup.”

Such a life on benefits was “pretty miserable”, according to the MP, and he is blunt about how this translates into his politics:

“My mother did many positive things, not least teaching me good manners – but a strange thing really to prioritise, and I just wished she’d done more to work.

“She [sometimes] wouldn’t get up in the morning, and my brother, who was only 18 months older than me, had to get us up for school. So that’s a five and six or seven year old doing it, you’re regularly late for school. I wish she’d had a stronger emphasis on the work ethic. I think that would have made it a more pleasant childhood. I have a strong work ethic and I think other people should have one. My views on welfare come from that personal experience, I accept that.”

He believes the coalition “should have a system that can differentiate between those who won’t work and those who can’t work”, and laments “a culture within the [Labour] party at the moment which suggests that you should not talk about people who won’t work, or should deny that there are such people. Well, there are lots of people out there that won’t work, don’t want to work. . . We have to have a straight and honest conversation about it and I just wish Labour would do that, because they would gain much greater respect from the electorate.”

Rochdale is where Cyril Smith, the late Lib Dem MP and serial abuser of young boys, reigned for two decades. Danczuk has recently released a book revealing the dark stories of the gargantuan politician, Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith. In it are horrifying first-person testimonies from some of Smith’s victims.

He reveals, darkly, that, “there were people out to protect Smith because he was part of a network of paedophiles. I’m absolutely, wholly convinced of that. And more will come out I think in the near future to show that Smith could’ve easily been part of a Westminster network of paedophiles.”

He explains that along with some other MPs, including Tom Watson, Zac Goldsmith and Tessa Munt, he is working on “exposing other politicians [of the past] who’ve been implicated in this stuff.”

In a chilling parallel, Danczuk has also had to deal with the child grooming ring scandal in Rochdale, which similarly involved vulnerable children and a failure on the part of local authorities.

“One of the reasons Smith wasn’t prosecuted in the Sixties was that the Director of Public Prosecutions said ‘they were unreliable witnesses’. What he meant by that was that these poor, white, working-class, vulnerable boys would make unreliable witnesses.

“And you fast-forward 30 or 40 years to the Rochdale grooming scandal and initially the CPS decided not to prosecute, the police weren’t pushing it, social services didn’t really care, and that was because they were poor, white, working-class, vulnerable girls. It upsets me actually. Why haven’t we moved in that 40 years?”

Danczuk sighs that he’ll be “happy to move off” the subject of child abuse, which has so consumed his work as an MP, and is looking forward to concentrating on less upsetting topics. He loves his work on the communities and local government select committee, for which he has a “98 per cent attendance record”, he beams.

Also, he and his wife own a deli in Rochdale, called Danczuk’s Deli, and they are finding the taxes levied on small businesses tough, so he wants to do some work around business rates. He hopes to open a new shop and grow the business.

One in Islington?

He grins: “Apparently that’s where Ed buys his bread from, isn’t it? I haven’t read that article but somebody was telling me. Not from Morrisons but from some Chalk Farm deli or something. . .”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.